The road to the top of the MMA world is a long and winding one, and it’s littered with hard-luck tales of talented prospects who promised much but struggled to bounce back after suffering high-profile losses.
Here, we feature six rising prospects who each suffered big losses. Some were shocks, some were damaging, and others simply gave confident fighters a moment’s pause. But all of them drew headlines as their momentum hit the buffers against more experienced opposition.
Of course, the best up-and-coming fighters will bounce back from their headline-making defeats and go on to achieve greatness in the sport. But sometimes their early losses on the big stage mark the point where certain fighters find their level against the world’s best.
Let’s take a look back at six occasions when highly-touted rising stars experienced the bitter taste of defeat on the big stage.
Donald Cerrone def. Alexander Hernandez at UFC on ESPN+ 1 – Jan. 19, 2019
After back-to-back wins in the UFC, lightweight Alexander Hernandez saw victory over Donald Cerrone as the perfect way to catapult himself toward the sharp end of the 155-pound division. He fancied his chances and wasn’t shy to express his confidence at the pre-fight press conference, where he mocked “Cowboy” and promised to send his “geriatric ass yee-hawing back to the stables.”
“I’m looking through the fighter,” Hernandez said at the time. “I’m looking at the man and think the persona’s a big distraction. I just see myself facing an insecure little lad, swinging on a saddle with a pop-gun and a feather in his hat.”
But despite some dynamite pre-fight rhetoric, Hernandez had no answer for Cerrone on fight night, as “Cowboy” handed out a stark lesson on how tough life is in the UFC’s 155-pound division.
Cerrone lit up Hernandez with his strikes, bloodying the talented up-and-comer before dropping him with a big head kick, then closing the show with some ground strikes to score a big win and hand Hernandez his first defeat on the big stage.
What happened next? Hernandez seemingly lost none of his confidence since that defeat to Cerrone and has gone 1-1 since, with a decision win over Francisco Trinado followed by a TKO defeat at the hands of Drew Dober.
Henry Corrales def. Aaron Pico at Bellator 214 – Jan. 26, 2019
It all seemed to be going swimmingly for Aaron Pico at Bellator 214.
The highly-touted Bellator featherweight had already dropped Henry Corrales and was looking to put the seal on what would have been a statement victory when disaster struck.
As Pico locked up with Corrales in the center of the cage and looked to soften him up with shots before connecting with a fight-finishing punch, “OK” struck first.
Corrales connected with a colossal right hand and followed up with three more heavy shots as what looked set to be the biggest win of Pico’s career turned into a huge knockout loss.
Pico remains a dangerous presence in Bellator’s 145-pound division, but after his back-to-back stoppage losses, the willingness to fast-track him to the top has eased somewhat.
He may still reach the featherweight summit, but both Pico and Bellator seem content to pump the brakes and take their time, and that may well prove to be the right move in the long term.
What happened next? Pico’s loss to Corrales was followed by another stoppage loss, to Adam Borics. After taking six months off, Pico returned in January with a knockout win over Daniel Carey, then followed up with a first-round submission of Solo Hatley Jr. at Bellator 242 on July 24.
Cosmo Alexandre def. Sage Northcutt at ‘ONE Championship 96: Enter the Dragon’ – May 17, 2019
Sage Northcutt’s arrival in ONE Championship was greeted with great fanfare, but any thoughts of “Super Sage” making a big impact on his debut in Asia were crushed by a veteran striker whose punch power left the young fighter on the sidelines battered, bruised and broken.
Brazilian muay Thai striker Cosmo Alexandre had no intention of being a tune-up fight for the American and finished Northcutt with a huge one-punch KO, as a big right hand finished the debutant in just 29 seconds.
Alexandre was fighting at his optimal weight of 185 pounds, while Northcutt had moved up to the division after a career spent at 155 and 170. The jump in weight, plus Alexandre’s striking acumen, combined to leave Northcutt with eight facial fractures that required nine hours of surgery to repair.
What happened next? Due to the severity of his injuries, Northcutt hasn’t fought since but plans to make his return later in 2020. Perhaps sensibly, he’s also dropping back down to 155 pounds, too.
Roxanne Modafferi def. Maycee Barber at UFC 246 – Jan. 18, 2020
When Maycee Barber first exploded into the consciousness of fight fans, she was already making clear her grand plan: Become the youngest champion in UFC history.
That publicly-stated desire hung around Barber’s neck with each passing fight as she registered a hat-trick of victories to kick off her UFC career.
It meant expectations were high when Barber took on Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 246 in January, but rather than another big win for “The Future,” it was “The Happy Warrior” who prevailed, as Modafferi produced a dominant display to hand Barber the first defeat of her professional career.
Modafferi had dominated the opening round when Barber sustained a torn ACL in Round 2. It meant the young striker was unable to let her shots fly and found Modafferi’s grappling attack too hot to handle.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Modafferi had left Barber cut and bloodied as she claimed a shutout win on the scorecards with scores of 30-27, 30-27, 30-26.
What happened next? After undergoing surgery to repair her ACL, Barber returned to the mats in June and is looking to build up her fitness at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas. Speaking to MMA Junkie, she said she hopes to be back in action before the end of the year.
Timothy Johnson def. Tyrell Fortune at Bellator 239 – Feb. 21, 2020
After eight fights, and eight wins, under the Bellator banner, Tyrell Fortune was becoming frustrated with a lack of a promotional push. But his ninth fight saw him succumb to an upset defeat as he was finished by seasoned veteran Timothy Johnson at Bellator 239.
Johnson, who departed the UFC after going 4-3 inside the octagon, had lost back-to-back fights to Cheick Kongo and Vitaly Minakov upon his arrival in the Bellator heavyweight division and was tasked with halting the charge of the highly touted up-and-comer Fortune.
Many viewed the matchup as a “prospect vs. gatekeeper” fight, but Johnson produced a superb display to knock Fortune out cold, as he handed the rising heavyweight contender his first career defeat while reminding everyone that he’s still very much a factor in Bellator’s heavyweight division.
What happened next? The COVID-19 lockdown followed Fortune’s loss to Johnson, meaning the option of a quick-fire turnaround wasn’t available. Bellator returned to action in July, which should open the door for the Florida-based heavyweight to bounce back in the coming months.
Derek Brunson def. Edmen Shahbazyan at UFC on ESPN+ 31 – Aug 1, 2020
The most recent example of a rising contender suffering a roadblock in their career came on Saturday night, when longtime resident of the middleweight rankings Derek Brunson handed Edmen Shahbazyan his first career loss with a third-round TKO stoppage at UFC on ESPN+ 31.
After a solid start by Shahbazyan, Brunson utilized his wrestling to take the young upstart off his feet. Once the action hit the mat, Brunson dominated top position and landed some nasty ground and pound that came close to earning him a second-round stoppage.
The fight was allowed to continue into the third round, but Brunson didn’t need too much of it to finish the job as he finished Shahbazyan to remind the doubters that he’s still a dangerous player in the UFC’s 185-pound division.
What happens next? It will be very interesting to see what happens with Shahbazyan next. Shahbazyan’s manager, Ronda Rousey, experienced a crushing first UFC defeat at an even higher-profile level and it will be fascinating to see how her input helps guide Shahbazyan through the next stage of his career.